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Generous Spirit

George L. Murphy

Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology. Max Jammer. 268 pp. Princeton University Press, 1999. $22.95.

Albert Einstein's use of religious language is well known: God "does not play dice," and "The Lord is subtle but he is not malicious." Such references to the divine by one of the greatest of physicists seem important for today's flourishing dialogue between science and religion. But what did Einstein really mean when he spoke of "God" or "the Lord"? How important was his Jewish heritage for him? Did his religious beliefs influence his science, and how significant has his work been for modern theology? In the present work Max Jammer, the author of several major books on the history and philosophy of science, examines those questions with care. Detailed references and quotations from Einstein’s publications and material in the Einstein Archive in Jerusalem help to make this a valuable resource.

In his religion as in his scientific work, Einstein showed independence and originality together with respect for those who had gone before him. His generosity of spirit is seen in his ability to honor the religious views of others even while guided by beliefs that differed in important ways from traditional religion. Thus he was sometimes misunderstood and categorized as an "atheist" or "mystic." Jammer puts this in context with discussions of a number of contemporary criticisms and appreciation of Einstein’s statements about religion.

Einstein didn't develop his religious views at length in any systematic statement but the picture we get from the cited material is fairly clear. The religious beliefs of the mature Einstein can be identified with the pantheism of the 17th-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, a man he greatly admired. (In an appendix Jammer gives a German poem of Einstein's in honor of the Ethics of Spinoza, "that noble man.")

In Spinoza's system there is no personal deity separate from nature. God is identified with the world so that one can speak of "God or nature." Although the background of Einstein’s work in relativity and quantum theory should be sought in the physics of his predecessors, his belief in a God who could be discerned "in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists" helped to drive him to understand these phenomena. On the other hand, the belief in strict determinism that he shared with Spinoza was one factor that led him to regard the current form of quantum theory as incomplete, and thus to part company with much of the physics community.

Einstein's position on the significance of scientific work for religion is ambiguous. He certainly thought that science and his own "cosmic religion" benefited from one another but apparently felt that relativity was irrelevant for organized religion. At least that is how Jammer interprets Einstein's statement to the Archbishop of Canterbury that the theory "is a purely scientific matter and has nothing to do with religion." In any case, a number of philosophers and theologians have felt that relativity and quantum theory are germane to their work. Jammer's final chapter, "Einstein's Physics and Theology," explores debates about these topics and is a helpful introduction to some aspects of the modern science-theology dialogue.—George L. Murphy, Theology and Science, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio


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